THE GLOBAL telecoms boom that reached its zenith almost two decades ago was made for satire. It united two of the most intoxicating technologies of all time, the mobile phone and the internet. It generated the biggest wave of value-destroying takeovers the world had ever seen. Its apex, the £22.5bn ($35bn) sale of third-generation (3G) wireless spectrum in Britain in 2000, was such a humdinger that the boffins who devised it described it, with a Pythonesque flourish, as the most successful auction since the Praetorian Guard sold the Roman Empire to Didius Julianus in 193AD.
Vodafone, a British mobile operator active across Europe, epitomised the madness of the time. Its £112bn hostile takeover launched in 1999 of Mannesmann, a German rival, was a gripping epic that went on for months—partly against the backdrop of the Savoy Grill, a posh London eatery where both sides mercilessly skewered each other. Vodafone bid almost £6bn over 150 rounds for its British 3G licence, more than any other firm. Then came the telecoms bust of 2001, almost as abrupt as the end of Didius Julianus, whose reign lasted all of nine weeks. It still haunts Vodafone today. The company’s return on assets, in lofty double digits until 2000, has been negligible or negative every year since but one.
Telecoms firms have built the networks over which social media, emails, cat videos and other marvels of communication flow, but the sums customers pay to use them has shrunk relentlessly. Understandably, that makes the companies wary of splashing out fortunes on the next mobile lottery, building fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks. Yet they face a prisoner’s dilemma. If none of them takes part, they could all avoid a huge bill. If only one does, it will clean up. If all of them do, they all suffer. Once again Vodafone is in the thick of the action. This time its strategy gives an inkling of how to avoid the worst of the pitfalls.
Vir: The Economist